Hunting The Horny Back Toad

Elton John’s God-given vocals and Bernie Taupin’s songwriting genius shine in the classic hit Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Recorded in 1973, the namesake album sold over 30 million copies and the individual song remains one of the most recognizable tunes ever. However, the lyrics might not be well known including the significance of the line, “hunting the horny back toad”.

A few nights ago my daughter, Emily, sent me an email  “Dad, you gotta listen to this. It’s Sara Bareilles covering Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. She’s one of the only few people I’ve ever heard that can do Elton John properly.”

Note: Before you read any more of this post, click on this link and listen to this beautiful voice:

Do it. Click now.

My wife, Rita, and I listened to Sara Bareilles sing Goodbye Yellow Brick Road twice and once more. Then we YouTubed a live concert version from Elton John himself. I had to agree with Emily. Sara Bareilles was just that good in her cover.

Her version earwormed me, and the words, “back to the howling old owl in the woods hunting the horny back toad” kept repeating. So I Googled the lyrics to see if I was hearing that right.

Sure enough, the chorus goes:

So goodbye yellow brick road
Where the dogs of society howl
You can’t plant me in your penthouse
I’m going back to my plough

Back to the howling old owl in the woods
Hunting the horny back toad
Oh, I’ve finally decided my future lies
Beyond the yellow brick road

I asked Rita, “What do you think the significance of hunting the horny back toad is?”

She said, “Well, it’s figurative language. Most songwriters, probably all, use figurative language to express their idea or deliver the song’s meaning.”

“Figurative language,” I replied. “The more I do this writing thing, the more I realize how much I don’t know about figurative language. Or basic English for that matter. I just want to know what a horny back toad is and why Elton John wants to go back to whatever the howling old owl in the woods is and why the owl wants to hunt the horny back toad and what’s in it for him, the owl. Like, it all has to mean something.”

Rita smiled. She said, “You were an investigator. Figure it out.”

I said, “Yeah, though I wasn’t a very good investigator.” But I took the challenge and dug in. First thing I did was Google Horny Back Toad. I quickly found out there was no such animal. Reptile, that is. The closest creature I could find was a horn back lizard and it wasn’t technically a toad. My suspicion deepened that the horny back toad must be some kind of metaphor or simile or symbol described through figurative language.

So being the detective that I was, I went toad hunting through rabbit hole research. I learned stuff. Figurative language stuff. Stuff writers should know.

I found this quote: “Figurative language is the color we use to amplify our writing. It takes an ordinary statement and dresses it up in an evocative frock. It gently alludes to something without directly stating it. Figurative language is a way to engage your readers, guiding them through your writing with a more creative tone. Any time your writing goes beyond the actual meaning of your words, you’re using figurative language. That allows your reader to gain new insights into your work.”

I read more figurative language stuff. I’m well familiar with the basics such as metaphors, similes, and symbolism. But I wasn’t that familiar with was figurative language sub-categories, and it kept me hunting for the toad in the rabbit hole. I leaned there’s a big world out there in semantic stuff that supports figurative language, such as:

Personification — comparing animals or inanimate objects with people.

Zoomorphism — comparing people with animals, sorry, reptiles like horny back toads.

Synecdoche — exemplifying parts of an object (a subset of metaphors).

Metonymy — substituting a name to shift focus.

Clichés — overused sayings (also called dead metaphors).

Connotations — a feeling a word invokes in addition to its literal or primary meaning.

Phonology — the sounds produced by language.

Syntax — the structure of words, sentences, paragraphs, and so forth.

Idioms — descriptive word groups like raining cats and dogs.

Ambiguity — words with two or more outward ways of meaning.

Polysemy — several meanings in the same word.

Homonymy — different words with same sound (to, too, two).

Hyperbole — exaggerated words and phrases.

Understatement — presenting something as being smaller, worse, or less important.

Synonyms — alike descriptors.

Antonyms — opposite descriptors.

Proverbs — short pithy saying in general use, stating a general truth or piece of advice.

Onomatopoeia — formation of a word from a sound associated with what is (cuckoo).

Alliteration — same letter/sound beginning or adjacent to or closely connected words.

Oxymoron — figure of speech which contradicts terms (military intelligence).

Paradox — seemingly absurd statement that turns out to be true.

Allusion — expression calling something to mind without explicitly mentioning it .

Pun — the pigs were a squeal (if you’ll forgive the pun).

I found more figurative examples of semantics, and I learned some things about this peculiar language called English. I’m sure this clarity will help improve my writing craft skills which is a good thing. But I came no closer to understanding how the horny back toad fell into any of these figurative speech categories.

I popped outa the rabbit hole, toadless, and thought this out. There has to be something simple here. Probably hiding in plain sight. I’ll take the song apart, bit by bit.

Okay, “yellow brick road” I get. It’s the fast life and Bernie wants Elton to leave it for a simpler life like going back to his “plough” at his “old man’s farm” whose earlier advice he should’ve taken. That’s pretty clear. So is “not signed up with you” and “I’m not a present for your friends to open” which are very powerful statements when you dwell on them.

“This boy’s too young to be singing the blues”? I think I understand that figurative reference. Same with “the dogs of society howl.” And “can’t plant me in your penthouse” really adds to the story – greatly helps to paint the big picture.

“Shoot down the plane”, “couple of vodka and tonics”, and “set you on your feet again” make things clearer yet as to what Bernie Taupin was saying through Elton John’s voice. ‘Get a replacement”, “plenty like me to be found”, “mongrels who ain’t got a penny sniffing for tidbits on the ground” — I get it all.

But what I still didn’t get was, “back to the howling old owl in the woods hunting the horny back toad.” What am I missing? Let me dissect this some more.

To start with, owls hoot. They don’t howl. And Bernie broke a main writing rule where he used the same two strong descriptors close together on two different subjects—dogs of society howling and the old owl in the woods howling. If I tried that, I’d get 1-Starred on Amazon. But he’s Bernie F’n Taupin so he can do whatever he wants with figurative speech. Sorta like what Stephen King gets away with.

Okay, we got this old owl howling and hunting in the woods. I’ll take that at face value, but it circles to the horny back toad issue. Maybe I’m reading this wrong, like there’s a punctuation error. A missing comma, maybe. It might be a horny, back toad—not a toad with protective protuberances permeating on its back at all. Maybe it’s a back toad that’s just plain horny—as in sexually excited. If the horny, back toad is a male, like most males in any species that get into the rut or swept away in breeding season or liquored-up on a road trip in an out-of-town bar, then it has only one thing on its mind which would cause it to drop its guard. The wise old owl would know this and that the horny, back toad was—in that state—an easy target to glean as a food source thereby assuring the ongoing survival of this owl’s sub-species vis-à-vis the toad’s sexually-indulgent and self-destructing demise.

I ran this by Rita. She said, “No. That’s silly. It makes no sense whatsoever within the context and elements of the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road story. What’s that thing you always preach from your detective days? Occam’s razor? Where the simplest answer is usually the correct answer? Go back to basics and think it through.”

I did.

So goodbye yellow brick road
Where the dogs of society howl
You can’t plant me in your penthouse
I’m going back to my plough

Back to the howling old owl in the woods
Hunting the horny back toad
Oh, I’ve finally decided my future lies
Beyond the yellow brick road

Then it hit me. What if there was absolutely no meaning to a howling old owl out there in the woods bent on murdering some poor, defenseless, and aroused toad schmuck? What if Bernie Taupin simply had writer’s block and struggled with something to rhyme with “road” and the word “toad” suddenly popped into his mind? Then Bernie grabbed a random owl to go along with it, added some adjective and adverb figurative descriptors that had to work with the phonology of his lyrics and made Elton John’s voice flow?

Kill Zoners? Can things sometimes be simply this simple? What’s your figurative language interpretation of “hunting the horny back toad”?